Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Lismore Festival of Travel Writing - another great weekend

The Immrama Festival of Travel Writing has just finished and it was another terrific success. It is now in its seventh year and is growing from strength to strength, and we say this every year! I am involved vicariously and directly, as hubby Jan is the Administrator and has to ensure that things go alright on the night - and day. I am on-site at every event run under the direct auspices of the Immrama committee as a First-Aid person as required under the Health and Safety rules for such events. Thankfully there were no major incidents apart from a grazed elbow in the park yesterday, which responded well to a bit of TLC and a nice plaster!

The Mayor, Kate Adie and photographer me!

I have written about the run-up events prior to the Festival weekend, in the post on Devonshire Day and also the Immrama Launch party. So regular readers will know about the background already and newcomers can follow the links! Suffice to say in this post that the particular line-up of presenters this year followed an equally illustrious A-list in previous years, as we have had well-known writers in the travel genre in diverse settings since its inception. Some that come to mind are Michael Palin, Brian Keenan, Tim Butcher, Nick Danziger, Robert Fisk, Jung Chang, Charlie Bird, and many more, all over the course of a long weekend in June. There are many fringe events, and these bring a crowd to town, as well as those who come from far and wide for the main Immrama programme.

This year we were privileged to have another great line-up, with a double header for the keynote event as it was impossible to chose one main speaker over another. Kate Adie and Fergal Keane drew a packed auditorium in the Blackwater Community School hall on Saturday afternoon and again on Saturday night. Both spoke eloquently and passionately about their lives and their profession of journalism and reporting from chiefly conflict zones like Iraq, South Africa, Rwanda and other troubled places.

Two Catherines - me and C. de Courcy

They also shared a lot of personal information on their lives and their childhood years, and Fergal read some beautiful poetry that he had never read for an audience before Immrama. This was deeply moving writing, outside the autobiographies that the majority of the audience would have been familiar with, and it is something that Lismore seems to bring out in the speakers. There is invariably an incredible atmosphere in the town during the weekend, and the speakers all seem to love being here, with such a welcoming responsive audience, who really engage with them, and the Q&A session after the talks become a forum for debate and animated discussion. There is usually a book-signing session after the talk, which must lead to writers' cramp but they are invariably patient and attentive to all comers, posing for photos and writing personalised dedications as requested.

All the speakers seem genuinely delighted to get such a warm Lismore welcome and over the years many have favourably compared the reception they receive here with that in other literary festivals. Perhaps that is the advantage of a small festival where we have a good committee, and assign people to hospitality whose role is to ensure that the speakers are well cared for. They were brought to and from the venue, and entertained with trips to the local beauty spots like the Vee where there was time to do so, and then they have a chance to meet the locals in the pub each evening. A different hostelry is designated as the Festival Club each evening, and all repair there for a bit of relaxation, chat and music and "craic". The latter is a peculiarly Irish form of fun, which has nothing to do with mind-altering substances other than that which a drop of alcohol may confer on the imbiber!

Bilingual Children's workshop - that's Dervla Murphy's bike and books on the shelf!
The weekend began on Thursday - a good time for every weekend to start I think you would all agree - with a moving talk by Catherine de Courcy in the Lismore Courthouse Theatre. Catherine is a Dublin woman who lived in Australia for many years and was married to John, an Australian Vietnam Veteran who had post-traumatic stress disorder, and who sadly took his own life in 2000. It was evident for years prior to his suicide that John was a troubled man and all efforts to help him were futile, and Catherine powerless to prevent him from carrying out his frequent threat to commit suicide. They had a wonderful life together, travelling all over the outback and writing travel books like Desert Tracks and River Tracks. She was many years coming through the grief process following John's death and has written a moving book about this time in An Adventure in Grief.

Catherine had been in Lismore in 2005 for Immrama when she hosted a Creative Writing workshop, which I found really inspiring. So it was great to see her back this time as a speaker and the audience were enthralled by her talk and the lively questions and answers session thereafter. We all went to the Lismore House Hotel for a few drinks after the presentation, the festival club venue for that evening, and had a chat and a few drinks while we braced ourselves for the rest of the weekend.

Friday was a busy day, with the Bilingual Poetry Workshops in the Lismore Library for three groups of primary school children, and hosted by Irish language poet from An Rinn (Ring), Áine Uí Fhoghlú, who awakened the natural creative spirit of the children in the course of the morning. The WLRFM BlasterCaster van was in town for two days live broadcasting and it gave great publicity locally to the Festival, as they interviewed committee members and presenters throughout both Friday and Saturday.

Rory MacLean in an aerial shot

Fergal Keane enthralling the audience

Friday evening saw another speaker in the Courthouse Theatre, Rory MacLean, a Canadian travel writer now living in Berlin, who has travelled beyond the old Iron Curtain and written a semi-fictional account with characters that may be real or simply based on composite characters...who knows but it makes for fascinating reading! He also wrote about his journeys in Burma, where he met Aung San Suu Kyi, and he travelled from Istanbul to Kathmandhu along the old Hippie Trail, and wrote about it in The Magic Bus. He has a distinctly quirky style and I really look forward to reading his books. This is one of the joys of Immrama, stocking up guilt-free on all the books of the speakers, getting them signed and anticipating the pleasure in reading them over the summer. Luckily Easons are the main sponsor, and as they are Ireland's best-known bookshop they manage to get large stocks of the speakers' books, many of which may have been hard to source otherwise. Another night in the pub, this time Foley's on the Mall, which was packed and the ambience was perfect for the festival weekend.

Jan and me - cameras in tow - posing!
Saturday we had a talk from the County Librarian, Donal Brady, on the films of Co. Waterford, which has many associations with the industry. Pat O'Connor the film director is a Lismore native who is also linked to Ardmore where he spent his childhood summers. He has a distinguished body of work that is internationally recognised, and he is widely regarded as one of Ireland's finest contemporary directors. There were a number of films made on location around the county, many I knew of and others were a surprise. Barry Lyndon is probably the best known, and has many well-known locations up the Vee near Lismore, as well as the banks of the Blackwater near Ballinatray, on the road to Youghal.

I have already mentioned the main speakers at the start of the post, and Kate Adie and Fergal Keane certainly got a wonderful welcome, and it was a great privilege to meet such iconic journalists and writers who bring the reports of the conflicts of our contemporary world into our living rooms with such integrity.
Kate Adie and the First Aid steward!
For years when we lived in Tanzania Fergal Keane was a link to home, with his dulcet Irish tones bringing BBC World Service news from Southern Africa in its transition from Apartheid to freedom in the wake of Mandela's release from Robben Island to his election as President of the new South Africa and beyond. He reported for Panorama on Rwanda in the height of the genocide of 1994 and this has left a lasting impression, which he has written about in Seasons of Blood and All of these People, his autobiography.

I still recall watching his Panorama documentary in a refugee area in Western Tanzania at the height of the crisis when someone was sent the video from home. He followed one of the genocidal commune leaders into Benaco Camp in Ngara from the village in Rwanda where he oversaw the massacre in the church at Nyarubuye and it has to be one of the most memorable moments in television documentary history. Justice was eventually done as that leader, and Sylvestre Gacumbitsi was convicted in Arusha on Fergal's evidence. Fergal has Ardmore connections through his grandmother and spends time there every summer with Ann, his wife, and their two children, and many friends came from Ardmore to meet him in Lismore.

Fergal Keane, Jan and me at the book signing
Kate Adie was equally inspiring, with her strong sense of justice speaking out on the ethics or otherwise of embedded journalism, which is often a byword for control, as in the case of those journalists embedded with the American forces in Iraq, who were able to report what the military wanted them to report, and were constrained in their impartiality. She is more or less retired now, though I love to listen to her on BBC 4 From our own Correspondents programme. It has entered the lexicon to say that things can't be too bad in a conflict zone if Kate Adie hasn't shown up, and that the trouble hasn't yet started if Kate Adie hasn't yet arrived!

She went from Lismore to Althorp, the Earl of Spencer's gaff in England, where there was a Literary Festival taking place, and with only the serendipity of these things, Tim Butcher of Blood River fame who was a speaker at Immrama 2008, was also participating, and the two of them are friends. It was great to be able to send him greetings from Lismore with Kate - who managed to be in both places in the same weekend!

Sunday dawned with the Literary Breakfast in Ballyrafter where Manchán Magan was the speaker. He was very funny, regaling us with tales of his misadventures in Africa when he trucked down the continent in an old ex-army Bedford truck, with a bunch of misfits and escapists who were a far cry from the explorer-type soulmates he'd hoped to meet. He is well-known from his travel programmes on TG4 the Irish-language national TV channel, and has done some great documentaries with his brother Ruán.

Manchan Magan at the Literary Breakfast
More recently he made a programme "No Béarla" where he travelled around Ireland only speaking Irish (Gaeilge) and had some bizarre encounters which demonstrated the abysmal level of knowledge of our mother tongue. He was frequently enjoined to f*** off back to his own country and was barred from a pub or two, but the weirdest stunt was to go busking in Galway, the gateway to the Connemara Gaeltacht - the heartland of the language, where Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4 are based - singing made-up songs using absolutely filthy language - "as Gaeilge"! If he'd been translated it wouldn't have passed the censor's watershed, and it was hilarious to see him getting praise and small change from little old ladies and gents!
This was the end of the literary part of the festival though there were many fringe events, and other gigs that I didn't have time to attend, like a talk and slide show by climber and mountaineer and broadcaster Dermot Somers, and a creative writing workshop given by Lismore's Annie Rogers and her friend and fellow-poet Mary Branley. There was the Molly Keane Short Story Award, and book launches by both Alan Murphy and Mary Branley. There was a late night Poetry Slam/Open Mic session in the hotel on Friday night, which ran the gamut from mystical to hysterical and all points between as it showcased established and emerging poets at the festival. The Lismore Farmers' Market ran all weekend in the Castle Avenue, adding to the festive ambience of the town.
I hasten to add that my presence at the events saw me tastefully attired in a reflective yellow Hi-Viz vest (check out me in the photo with Kate Adie!) and wielding a First-Aid kit, as required under the stringent Health and Safety guidelines for such events. The family fun day in the Millenium Park on Sunday afternoon was a huge crowd puller. The weather was wonderful all weekend and the Sunday afternoon was a fitting end to a great weekend, as hundreds enjoyed the live music, the Buí Bolg (YellowBelly!) Circus from Wexford, Paul the Wobbly Circus stilt walker from Grange, and BreakBeat Hip-Hop and Break Dancing troupe from Waterford City. Add on face painters and hair braiders and you have a perfect kids' world.
Altogether Immrama in its seventh year proved to be an amazingly successful and fulfilling weekend, once again ensuring Lismore's rightful place in the calender of literary festivals anywhere in the world, and the only one dedicated to the art of Travel Literature. We are already looking forward to 2010 and wondering what delights will be in store.
I will put all the photos in a slide show on the sidebar when I get a chance to upload them, so you can enjoy them at your leisure if you so wish!

1 comment:

Padraic Murray said...

Hi Catherine. I really enjoyed your post. I went to the Merriman School this year and enjoyed it. I liked your description of the lismore Festival and I will look out for it next year. The Lismore Festival has succeeded in bringing very interesting personalities and writers and keeping a lovely sense of intimacy. Greetings from glenageary! Padraic